Why it’s past time for governments to fix public comments online – and how

The Bot Wars, begun they have. Over the past two years, automated social media accounts and fraudulent regulatory filings have been used by anonymous parties to obscure public opinion, distort public discourse, and corrupt the integrity of rulemaking in the … Continue reading

President Obama announces forthcoming action on immigration using Facebook

President Barack Obama shared the news that he would address the nation tomorrow night regarding an executive actions he would take on immigration on Facebook before embedding the video on The White House blog and tweeting a link to it.

Even in late 2014, when the use of social media has become part of the warp and weft of American society and political discourse, seeing the president “go direct” to the people online, not through media, on an issue of this magnitude is worth noting. Over the past year, the Committee to Protect Journalists have hammered the Obama administration on transparency and White House photographers have criticized restrictions on access. Even tough critics of the administration’s record on access for photos or transparency, however, acknowledge the role social media and the Internet has now taken on in getting the words of the president out to the people he serves.

On that count, the fact that the “big four” broadcast TV networks in the U.S., CBS, Fox, NBC and ABC, are not airing the speech is noteworthy, as is that fact that Telemundo and Univision will carry it live.

People that want to listen over the Internet will be able to do so at whitehouse.gov/live or radio.

For more on the news, read the Washington Post’s report on the context that surrounds the executive action and a short history from the past 70 years of actions other presidents have taken on immigration, all of which should be considered in the context of the time, Congress and their longterm efficacy.

Google hopes Mr. Smith will use “YouTube for Government” to Hangout more online

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 5.09.39 PM

Google launched a “Google for Government” guide today, positioning it as a “a one-stop shop where government officials can learn how to get the most out of YouTube as a communication tool.” In a post on the Google Politics blog, Brandon Feldman recounts the use of YouTube by government, linking to examples from State of the Unionlegislative hearingsexplainer videos and Hangouts and asserting that “YouTube has become an important platform where citizens engage with their governments and elected officials.”

Putting aside the question of whether there’s two-way engagement going on or not in the comment sections on political videos on YouTube, which have been historically among the most toxic online, the guide will be useful to anyone looking for best practices on livestreaming or setting up a channel, playlists and other features.  As I’ve found, it’s quite easy to livestream a Hangout, save the recording to YouTube and share it afterwards.

The guide does include a section on “engaging your community” through Google Hangouts, a venue that I still believe has tremendous potential for Presidents and other elected leaders to receive real questions from citizens, escaping the bubble of media and access journalism.

Here’s hoping more representatives use this new technology to listen to their constituents, not just use it as a cheaper way to broadcast their speeches. That’s the wish Google Feldman expressed: “If you’re a government official, whether you are looking for an answer to a quick question or need a full training on YouTube best practices, we hope this resource will help you engage in a rich dialogue with your constituents and increase transparency within your community.”

The White House (quietly) asks for feedback on the open government section of its website

Obama at computer. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Over at Govfresh, Luke Fretwell took note of the White House asking for feedback on the open government section of WhiteHouse.gov. Yesterday, Corinna Zarek, senior advisor for open government in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), where the administration’s Open Government Initiative was originally spawned under former deputy chief technology officer Beth Noveck, published a email to the US Open Government Google Group:

We are working on a refresh of the Open Gov website, found at whitehouse.gov/open, and we’d like your help!

If you’re familiar with the history of the page, you can see we have begun updating it by shifting some of the existing content and adding new tabs and material.

What suggestions do you have for the site? What other efforts might we feature?

Please let us know – reply back to this thread, email us at opengov@ostp.gov, or tweet us at @OpenGov!

Here’s some background on the group and its purpose: The White House’s Open Government Working Group needs to solicit feedback from civil society in the United States on the various initiatives and commitments the administration has made. Such engagement is essential to the providing feedback from governance experts, advocates and the public on the development of new agency open government plans and discuss progress on the national open government action plan.

As a result of a discussion at the working group this spring, OSTP created the US Open Government discussion group to connect White House staff and agency officials who work on open government to people outside of the federal government. According to the group’s description, the goal of this group is to “provide a safe and welcoming arena for government-focused collaboration and news-sharing around Open Government efforts of the United States government.” That “safe and welcoming” language is notable: the group is moderated by OpenTheGovernment.org with an eye on constructive, on-topic feedback, as opposed to, say, the much more open-ended freewheeling posts and threads on the (long-since closed) Open Government Dialog of 2009 or Change.gov.

After almost six months, the open government group, which can be accessed through a Web browser or using an email listserv, has 177 members and 37 posts. By almost any measure, these are extremely low levels of participation and engagement, although the quality of feedback from those members remains extremely high. By way of contrast, a open government and civic tech group on Facebook now has over 1900 members and an open government community on Google+ has over 1400 members, with both enjoying almost daily contributions. Low participation rates on this US Open Government Google Group are likely due in part to lack of promotion by other White House staff to the media or using the various social media platforms has joined, which cumulatively have millions of followers, and, more broadly, the historic lows of public trust in government which have created icy headwinds for open government initiatives in recent years.

So far, Zarek’s solicitation has received two responses. One comes from Daniel Schuman, policy director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Washington, who made great suggestions, like adding a link to ethics.data.gov, a list of staff working on openness in the White House and their areas of responsibility, a link to 18f and the USDS.

“Finally, there are many great ideas about how to make government more open and transparent,” wrote Schuman. “Consider including a way for people to submit ideas where those submissions are also visible to the public (assuming they do not violate TOS). Consider how agencies or the government could respond to these suggestions. Perhaps a miniature version of “We the People,” but without the voting requiring a response.”

The other idea comes from open government consultant Lucas Cioffi, who suggested adding a link to a “community-powered open government phone hotline” like the experiment he recently created.

To those ideas, I’ll add eight quick suggestions in the spirit of open government:

1) Reinstate the open government dashboard that was removed and update it to the current state of affairs and compliance, with links to each. The Sunlight Foundation and CREW have already audited agency compliance with the Open Government Directive. By keeping an updated scorecard in a prominent place, the Obama administration could both increase transparency to members of the public wondering about what has been done and by whom, and put more pressure on agencies to be accountable for the commitments they have made.

2) Re-integrate individual case studies from the “Innovator’s Toolkit,” which was also removed, under participation and collaboration

3) Create a Transparency tab and link to the “IC on the Record” tumblr and other public repositories for formerly secret laws, policies or documents that have been released.

4) Blog and tweet more about what’s happening in the open government world outside of the White House. Multiple open government advocates do daily digests and there’s a steady stream of news and ideas on the #opengov and #opendata hashtags on Twitter. Link to what’s happening and show the public that you’re reading and responding to feedback.

5) Link to the White House account and open government projects on Github under both the new participation and collaboration tabs, like Project Open Data.

6) Highlight 18F’s effort to reboot the Freedom of Information Act.

7) Publish the second national action plan on open government as HTML on the site, and post and link to a version on Github where people can comment on it.

8)  Create a FAQ under “participation” that lists replies to questions sent to @OpenGov

If you have ideas for what should be wh.gov/open, well, now you know who to tell, and where.

Data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency

This morning, I gave a short talk on data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC, hosted by the Commons Lab.

Video from the event is online at the Wilson Center website. Unfortunately, I found that I didn’t edit my presentation down enough for my allotted time. I made it to slide 84 of 98 in 20 minutes and had to skip the 14 predictions and recommendations section. While many of the themes I describe in those 14 slides came out during the roundtable question and answer period, they’re worth resharing here, in the presentation I’ve embedded below:

[REPORT] On data journalism, democracy, open government and press freedom

On May 30, I gave a keynote talk on my research on the art and science of data journalism at the first Tow Center research conference at Columbia Journalism School in New York City. I’ve embedded the video below:

My presentation is embedded below, if you want to follow along or visit the sites and services I described.

Here’s an observation drawn from an extensive section on open government that should be of interest to readers of this blog:

“Proactive, selective open data initiatives by government focused on services that are not balanced by support for press freedoms and improved access can fairly be criticized as “openwashing” or “fauxpen government.”

Data journalists who are frequently faced with heavily redacted document releases or reams of blurry PDFs are particularly well placed to make those critiques.”

My contribution was only one part of the proceedings for “Quantifying Journalism: Metrics, Data and Computation,” which you can catch up through the Tow Center’s live blog or TechPresident’s coverage of measuring the impact of journalism.

United States federal government use of crowdsourcing grows six-fold since 2011

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Citizensourcing and open innovation can work in the public sector, just as crowdsourcing can in the private sector. Around the world, the use of prizes to spur innovation has been booming for years. The United States of America has been significantly scaling up its use of prizes and challenges to solving grand national challenges since January 2011, when, President Obama signed an updated version of the America COMPETES Act into law.

According to the third congressionally mandated report released by the Obama administration today (PDF/Text), the number of prizes and challenges conducted under the America COMPETES Act has increased by 50% since 2012, 85% since 2012, and nearly six-fold overall since 2011. 25 different federal agencies offered prizes under COMPETES in fiscal year 2013, with 87 prize competitions in total. The size of the prize purses has also grown as well, with 11 challenges over $100,000 in 2013. Nearly half of the prizes conducted in FY 2013 were focused on software, including applications, data visualization tools, and predictive algorithms. Challenge.gov, the award-winning online platform for crowdsourcing national challenges, now has tens of thousands of users who have participated in more than 300 public-sector prize competitions. Beyond the growth in prize numbers and amounts, Obama administration highlighted 4 trends in public-sector prize competitions:

  • New models for public engagement and community building during competitions
  • Growth software and information technology challenges, with nearly 50% of the total prizes in this category
  • More emphasis on sustainability and “creating a post-competition path to success”
  • Increased focus on identifying novel approaches to solving problems

The growth of open innovation in and by the public sector was directly enabled by Congress and the White House, working together for the common good. Congress reauthorized COMPETES in 2010 with an amendment to Section 105 of the act that added a Section 24 on “Prize Competitions,” providing all agencies with the authority to conduct prizes and challenges that only NASA and DARPA has previously enjoyed, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which has been guiding its implementation and providing guidance on the use of challenges and prizes to promote open government.

“This progress is due to important steps that the Obama Administration has taken to make prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox,” wrote Cristin Dorgelo, assistant director for grand challenges in OSTP, in a WhiteHouse.gov blog post on engaging citizen solvers with prizes:

In his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on all Federal agencies to increase their use of prizes to address some of our Nation’s most pressing challenges. Those efforts have expanded since the signing of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which provided all agencies with expanded authority to pursue ambitious prizes with robust incentives.

To support these ongoing efforts, OSTP and the General Services Administration have trained over 1,200 agency staff through workshops, online resources, and an active community of practice. And NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI) provides a full suite of prize implementation services, allowing agencies to experiment with these new methods before standing up their own capabilities.

Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy famously once said that “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” This rings true, in and outside of government. The idea of governments using prizes like this to inspire technological innovation, however, is not reliant on Web services and social media, born from the fertile mind of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. As the introduction to the third White House prize report  notes:

“One of the most famous scientific achievements in nautical history was spurred by a grand challenge issued in the 18th Century. The issue of safe, long distance sea travel in the Age of Sail was of such great importance that the British government offered a cash award of £20,000 pounds to anyone who could invent a way of precisely determining a ship’s longitude. The Longitude Prize, enacted by the British Parliament in 1714, would be worth some £30 million pounds today, but even by that measure the value of the marine chronometer invented by British clockmaker John Harrison might be a deal.”

X-prize-graph-300x297Centuries later, the Internet, World Wide Web, mobile devices and social media offer the best platforms in history for this kind of approach to solving grand challenges and catalyzing civic innovation, helping public officials and businesses find new ways to solve old problem. When a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, it can improve the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.

“Open innovation or crowdsourcing or whatever you want to call it is real, and is (slowly) making inroads into mainstream (i.e. non high-tech) corporate America,” said MIT principal research professor Andrew McAfee, in an interview in 2012.” P&G is real. Innocentive is real. Kickstarter is real. Idea solicitations like the ones from Starbucks are real, and lead-user innovation is really real.”

Prizes and competitions all rely upon the same simple idea behind the efforts like the X-Prize: tapping into the distributed intelligence of humans using a structured methodology. This might include distributing work, in terms of completing a given task or project, or soliciting information about how to design a process, product or policy.

Over the past decade, experiments with this kind of civic innovation around the world have been driven by tight budgets and increased demands for services, and enabled by the increased availability of inexpensive, lightweight tools for collaborating with connected populations. The report claimed that crowdsourcing can save federal agencies significant taxpayer dollars, citing an example of a challenge where the outcome cost a sixth of the estimated total of a traditional approach.

One example of a cost-effective prize program is the Medicaid Provider Screening Challenge that was offered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) as part of a pilot designed in partnership with states and other stakeholders. This prize program was a series of software development challenges designed to improve capabilities for streamlining operations and screening Medicaid providers to reduce fraud and abuse. With a total prize purse of $500,000, the challenge series is leading to the development of an open source multi-state, multi-program provider screening shared-service software program capable of risk scoring, credential validation, identity authentication, and sanction checks, while lowering the burden on providers and reducing administrative and infrastructure expenses for states and Federal programs. CMS partnered with the NASA Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI), NASA’s contractor Harvard Business School, Harvard’s subcontractor TopCoder, and the State of Minnesota. The State of Minnesota is working on full deployment of the software, and CMS is initiating a campaign to encourage other states to leverage the software. COECI estimates that the cost of designing and building the portal through crowdsourcing was one-sixth of what the effort would have cost using traditional software development methods. Through the success of this and subsequent
challenges, CMS is attempting to establish a new paradigm for crowdsourcing state and Federal information technology (IT) systems in a low-cost, agile manner by opening challenges to new players, small companies, and talented individual developers to build solutions which can “plug and play” with existing legacy systems or can operate in a shared, cloud-based environment.

As is always the nature of experiments, many early attempts failed. A few have worked and subsequently grown into sustainable applications, services, data sources, startups, processes and knowledge that can be massively scaled. Years ago, Micah Sifry predicted that the “gains from enabling a culture of open challenges, outsider innovation and public participation” in government were going to be huge. He was right.

Linked below are the administration’s official letters to the House and Senate, reporting the results of last year’s prizes.

COMPETES FY2013PrizesReport HOUSE Letter (PDF)/COMPETES FY2013PrizesReport HOUSE Letter (Text)

COMPETES FY2013 PrizesReport SENATE Letter (PDF)/COMPETES FY2013 PrizesReport SENATE Letter (Text)

[Image Credit: NASA SDO. Context: Solar flare predictive algorithm challenge]

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley asks Reddit to ‘Ask Me Anything’

omalley-ama

I generally agree with the assessment of Washington Post, with respect to how well Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit went for him, though I give him far more credit for venturing onto the unruly social news platform than the reporter did. The Post’s report that he only answered 5 questions was just plain incorrect.

O’Malley answered 19 questions this morning, not 5, a fact that could be easily and quickly ascertained by clicking on GovMartinOMalley, the username he used for the AMA, including a (short) answer to a question on mental health that the Post said went unanswered. (An editor made multiple corrections and updates to the Post’s story after I pointed that out.)

He subsequently logged back on in the afternoon to answer more questions, rebutting the Post’s assessment and that of a user: “I don’t know, I’m having fun! This is my first AMA. I had to step away to sign a bunch of bills, and I’m glad to be back,” he commented.

He answered at least one tough question (from a questioner who appears to have joined Reddit today) after doing so, although the answer hasn’t been highly rated:

@bmoreprogressive91: Thanks for doing an AMA. Just one question: How does the Maryland healthcare exchange, which cost taxpayers $90 million to implement before your administration found that it would be cheaper (at an additional $40-50 million) to just replace it than to fix it, show that your Administration has been effectively using taxpayer dollars to better the lives of individual citizens?

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/md-spent-90-million-on-health-exchange-technology-according-to-cost-breakdown/2014/04/18/5f2e7600-c722-11e3-8b9a-8e0977a24aeb_story.html

O’Malley: No one was more frustrated than I was about the fact that our health exchange website didn’t work properly when we launched. But our health exchange is more than a web site, and we worked hard to overcome the technical problems. We have enrolled about 329,000 people thus far, exceeding the goal we set of 260,000. I often say that we haven’t always succeeded at first, but we have never given up. We learn from both success and failure.

By the end of the day, Maryland’s governor answered 36 questions in total. (You can read a cleanly formatted version of O’Malley’s AMA at Interview.ly). Reddit users rated the quality of some answers much higher than others, with the most popular answer, “Yes,” coming in response to whether he would support a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court.

To be fair — and reasonable observers should be — Reddit’s utility for extracting answers from a politician isn’t so great, as Alexis Madrigal pointed out after President Barack Obama did an AMA, back in 2012. That said, I’m generally supportive of elected leaders engaging directly with constituents online using the tools and platforms that citizens are active upon themselves.

Popular questions that go unanswered can be instructive and offer some insight into what issues a given politician would rather not talk about in public. As such, they’re fine fodder for media to report upon. The record online, however, also means that when a reporter botches the job or misrepresents an interaction, question or answer, we can all see that, too.

Postscript: Andrew MacRae was critical of the governor and his team’s approach to Reddit and offered a tip for other politicians that venture onto the social news platform for an AMA. More on that in the embedded tweets, below:

This post was further updated after the Governor went back online in the afternoon.

[Image Credit: Governor O’Malley]

After a false positive, Twitter suspends open government blog for being too social

Twitter’s best practices for tweeting don’t appear to mix well with its rules for tweeting, as I found out last month when the social networking company briefly suspended the Twitter account for this blog. While I was able to quickly get the account back online, the episode raises somr issues regarding how Twitter’s algorithm flags media accounts and some contradictions in the company’s guidance for new users.

When I found that I couldn’t file a help request to Twitter Support to appeal the suspension of @e_pluribusunum_ through that account, I used my main account (@digiphile).

Initially, I thought the suspension was due to spam, similar to the situation David Seaman encountered in 2011.

After I directly contacted Twitter for help, the account went back online later that day:

As I found out days later, however, the suspension was for “sending multiple unsolicited @replies or mentions,” per the statement I have from Twitter Support on @e_pluribusunum_:
“This account was suspended for sending multiple unsolicited @replies or mentions. Twitter monitors the use of these features to make sure they’re not abused. Using either feature to post messages to other users in an unsolicited or egregious manner is considered an abuse of its use, which results in account suspension. You can find more information about @replies and mentions here:https://support.twitter.com/articles/14023-what-are-replies-and-mentions

I have now unsuspended your account. Please note that it may take an hour or so for your follower and following numbers to return to normal. Be sure to review the Twitter Rules, as repeat violations may result in permanent suspension: http://twitter.com/rules”

suspension-notice

The tweets in question, however, are extremely similar to the way I’ve been using Twitter for years, advise others to use Twitter, and that Twitter itself recommends to new users.

Here are the tweets sent the day before the suspension and the three that morning, which I have to assume triggered the suspension.

The seventh tweet, embedded above, had six different @names in it, but it was appropriate: I was attributing the source of the information, referring to an NPR program (The Kojo Nnamdi Show) and naming the 4 guests who were on it. The eighth tweet had three @mentions in it, as I had retweeted a media account that referred to a reporter and added the subject of the story for context.

So: Were there a lot of @mentions? Yep. Were they “unsolicited?” Yep.  That accurately describes tens of thousands of tweets that I’ve sent over the past seven years. In this case, they were far from “abuse.”

That led me to wonder how many people, journalists, government or media companies or nonprofit organizations a Twitter account is allowed to @mention before it’s suspended. Should any of the categories of users I listed now have to actively ask followers for feedback or allow others to talk about them? That doesn’t seem practical nor scalable. Are there different rules for different users, Verified or not? (I’ve asked Twitter for comment on these general questions but have received no answers after two weeks. I will update the post if I do.)

In the meantime, I’ve tried to think them through myself. The “newness” of this account likely tripped Twitter’s automated filter, leading to the suspension. That means that other new users have to think about whether they’re sending “unsolicited replies or mentions” to keep clear.

I found that deeply jarring. I used the @E_Pluribus Unum_ account exactly as I have @digiphile, for over 7 years now, resharing tweets with attributed context and quotes, tweeting about public figures and government officials, tagging mastheads, retweeting select tweets.

That’s more or less how I define being “social” and engaging on the platform. That’s how I thought Twitter defined it, too. Twitter’s own best practices for engaging followers recommends it:

Mention high-profile users
@HillaryClinton included Secretary of State Madeleine Albright username@madeleine in a Tweet welcoming the former Secretary to Twitter. In turn, Albright replied to @HillaryClinton and also mentioned the Kennedy Center (@kencen), where she had recently performed. Including so many mentions of other users makes it more likely that people will find the conversation and join in. ”

If Twitter is suspending new accounts that @mention too many high profile users or reply to them in an “unsolicited” fashion, I can’t help but have serious concerns about Twitter’s future and commitment to being a platform for free expression, government accountability, or hosting civic dialogue.

I do see potential issues with “egregious” @mentions — “@reply spam” has been an issue on Twitter for years — but isn’t that exactly what the block button has been used for, or the new abuse reporting button should be used for? People have been tweeting “#FollowFriday” recommendations for years with many unsolicited @mentions. Are they risking suspension?

Honestly, knocking new accounts offline for being “too social” suggests a tone-deaf algorithm. Ignoring my questions regarding general standards suggests something else. (The company generally refuses to comment on individual accounts.)

Given reports of retention issues and low activity by most users, an overly aggressive approach to filtering new users that are engaging in activity that Twitter itself recommends, particularly media accounts, strikes me as actively self-defeating.

Twitter and its investors should care about the people who never tweet. This experience reminded me that those same parties should care about the people who do tweet and are caught up on algorithmic censorship, followed by vague missives not to talk about other accounts too much.

As I’ve written before, Twitter is not a public utility. It’s a private company with a Terms of Service and Rules it itself sets.  If Twitter’s users don’t like them or lose trust, their option is to stop using the service or complain loudly on other platforms.

In general, Twitter’s record on censorship, Internet freedom and privacy is the best of the big tech companies, as an analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation last year highlighted. They’ve gone to bat for their users, from Turkey to Washington. Today, however, I just wish they’d clarify how social those users are allowed to be.

Editor’s Note: The headline of this post has been amended, with “After a false positive” added.